From River Pirate to Ming Emperor

By Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Armstrong, U.S. Navy

In many regions imperial officials had begun to lose their control over the local populations, and local warlords became stronger. Succumbing to the temptations of power, the warlords who had aligned themselves with the Red Turbans began dividing up the countryside. Along the mighty Yangtze River, three kingdoms dominated: the Han, Wu, and Ming.

The Han were located upstream on the middle Yangtze, while the Wu were downstream at the mouth of the river near present-day Shanghai. The Ming kingdom, located between its two rivals, centered on Nanjing. The militaries of these three powers vied for control of the waterways of the Yangtze and fought a decade-long conflict as the Yuan dynasty disintegrated.

In the summer of 1363 Chen Youliang, leader of the Han and the largest faction of the Red Turbans, launched a fleet downstream from his territory on the Yangtze River. Chen and the Ming leader, Zhu Yuanzhang, had been fighting a series of escalating battles for three years. Chen's fleet set out to besiege the walled city of Nanchang, controlled by forces loyal to the Ming. The city sat alongside the Gan River on the south end of Lake Poyang. Nanchang was the lynchpin to the vital Jiangxi region; by taking the city, Chen could gain a foothold in his enemy's territory and begin to establish dominance over his rivals.

Floating Towers

The walled cities of the Han, Ming, and Wu were the centers of gravity in 14th-century China, holding sway over the local countryside and dominating transportation through control of local waters with their paddlewheel-powered riverine patrols. 3 Chen's intelligence told him that the Ming armies were engaged in a battle on their southern front with the Wu army, and an opportunity for an uncontested surprise attack was at hand. Chen launched his fleet with 300,000 soldiers, sailors, and marines on board. 4

The Han fleet sailed from the Yangtze River into Lake Poyang and continued south to the city at the mouth of the Gan River. The ships of the fleet were huge, with the largest class, tower ships, capable of carrying 2,000 to 3,000 troops each, and featuring multiple decks, watertight hatches, specific holding areas for cavalry horses, and elaborate armored superstructures. 5 Their combat power and siege capabilities made the tower ships crucial in joint operations between armies and fleets, and their purpose-designed naval architecture was superior to that of European ships of the same period. Reaching the mouth of the Gan River at the south end of the lake, the Han army launched an amphibious assault and commenced an elaborate siege of Nanchang.

In 1360 Chen had launched a successful campaign using new tactics for his amphibious fleet. In his assault on Taiping the tower ships of the Han fleet had sailed their armored superstructures directly up to the walls of the waterfront city. With some of the world's earliest cannon providing fire support, Chen's marines scaled the walls directly from the vessels, the element of surprise overcoming the danger of a long and costly siege. Chen likely planned to descend on Nanchang and the other cities of Lake Poyang the same way, taking each with an initial massive assault in order to avoid the threat of a difficult siege. 6

The Ming garrison at Nanchang, however, knew of Chen's victory at Taiping and in the years since had labored to move their walls back from the shoreline and build them higher, limiting the advantage of the tower ships. As the Han fleet sailed before Nanchang and began their assault, the Ming proved up to the task of defending the walls, and a protracted siege developed. The Han fleet and the besieged Ming exchanged volleys with cannon and explosives. The fighting was vicious and deadly, and the siege continued for two months before a courier made his way out of the city and through the siege lines, and got word to the Ming expedition in the south that Nanchang was under attack. The Ming troops embarked on board their warships and headed north up the Yangtze.

Commanding the Ming fleet was Zhu Yuanzhang, destined to become known as the Taizu, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. Zhu had started his military career as a bandit and pirate along the Yangtze, eventually joining a local rebel group fighting the Mongols. He was a shockingly ugly man, so much so that his looks caused respect rather than repulsion. 7 Despite being raised in a farming family, he quickly rose through the ranks after aligning himself with the Red Turban movement, assisted by his martial skill and his marriage to the daughter of the Red Turbans' leader. In 1355 Zhu had taken command of the Red Turban army. Only a few years later the movement splintered, and while Chen's group was larger, Zhu retained command of an offshoot of the former army, which he grew into that of the Ming kingdom. 8

After landing a force to defeat the small Han garrison left to defend the entry from the Yangtze into the lake, the Ming fleet entered the strait and sailed into the waters of Lake Poyang. Zhu commanded a force estimated at 100,000 men on board nearly 1,000 ships, but it was significantly outnumbered by the Han forces. Once off the Yangtze, the Ming leader initiated his own joint campaign, combining sea and land forces. He dispatched two detachments to take positions and build forts at the mouth and outlet of the strait, attempting to close the chokepoint with early shore-based artillery. He ordered an overland army to march south to intercept the Han if they attempted to escape by land.

If the Han used their fleet to escape, the army could relieve Nanchang as the Ming fleet engaged the Han on the lake. With a portion of his land forces engaged, Zhu ordered the Ming fleet to get under way in search of his rival. According to the Ming Shilu , the imperial history of the Ming dynasty, Zhu told his commanders, "When you approach the enemy boats, first fire the firearms, then the bows and crossbows, and when you reach their boats, then [board and] attack them with hand-to-hand weapons." 9

Shifting Tides of Battle

On receiving intelligence of Zhu's advance, Chen raised the siege of Nanchang on the same day that the Ming fleet began its drive into the lake. He embarked his forces and set sail up the Gan River to re-enter Lake Poyang. With a force that was superior in both the size and number of ships and in the number of troops, Chen was in search of a decisive sea battle.

On 30 August 1363, the two fleets engaged on Lake Poyang. The Han tower ships, with their deeper draft, were constrained by declining water levels from a summer drought. Numerous shoals had developed, limiting their ability to maneuver. The Ming fleet, with its smaller ships and shallower draft, attempted to use this advantage to even the odds. The battle raged for four days, the momentum shifting several times. Thousands of casualties mounted as hundreds of ships were sunk.

The armored tower ships of the Han fleet proved virtually unassailable on the first day of the battle. Sailing in close formation, with smaller picket ships surrounding the largest vessels, they easily repulsed all of the Ming assaults. Chen kept his fleet relatively stationary, allowing the Ming to batter themselves against his superior ships. Zhu's own flagship ran aground as his fleet attempted to swarm the larger enemy ships. But as the Han closed on the stranded ship, the wake created by the battling vessels fortunately freed her from the shoals, and the smaller, faster ship slipped away. 10

The Ming commander learned an important lesson from his grounding. Zhu realized that in the shoaling waters of the lake, and locked in tight formation, the Han had limited room to maneuver and were a concentrated target. On the second day, he launched a fire-ship attack that took advantage of the Han formations and a favorable wind. As the small blazing vessels, packed with gunpowder, drifted down the lake toward the tower ships, the Han could not tack to escape their path. Smaller picket ships could move to avoid the unmanned assault, but the tower ships risked running aground if they maneuvered. Unable to move, the fleet could not counterattack, and more than 100 Han vessels were sunk while 60,000 Han were killed. Surrounded by the screams of the burning and drowning, the Ming sailors stormed onto the flaming ships and took enemy heads. 11

The Ming relief army, meanwhile, swept overland to the rescue of Nanchang and quickly routed the Han forces that had been left behind to maintain the siege. The third day of the four-day engagement was used by both fleets to regroup. Chen still had the larger fleet, in both number of troops and ships. After a final but indecisive day of battle on the lake, Zhu pulled back from the superior Han fleet and set sail for the Yangtze River, where he hoped to bottle up and destroy the enemy in one final battle.

The Ming use of joint land and sea forces left the Han in a difficult position. The Ming had retaken Nanchang, and the now-reinforced garrison there blocked any escape south via the Gan River. Zhu's armies that had disembarked at the northern strait blocked the route to the Yangtze. Any Han attempt to break out into the river toward home required not only the defeat of the Ming ground forces but also another engagement with their fleet. Inexplicably Chen delayed his decision, apparently perplexed by the lack of an obvious choice and despite the fact that his fleet remained stronger than the Ming's. It was a month, with his supplies dwindling and the fleet on the verge of starvation, before Chen initiated his breakout attempt.

The Han fleet successfully fought its way clear of Lake Poyang, winning pitched cannon duels with the garrisons on the shores of the strait. When the fleet finally reached the Yangtze River, Chen attempted to turn upstream toward home. There Zhu and the Ming fleet were waiting. With the advantage of the river's current, the Ming first launched another salvo of fire ships downstream. Chen's ships tried to dodge the first wave, and in the confusion the ships of Zhu's fleet descended on the Han. The two engaged in a fierce battle, ships locked together and sailors and marines grappling and boarding each other's vessels as they were carried downriver. A Ming reserve squadron then joined the fight as the ships slipped into range, pushing the advantage to the Ming fleet. As the Han ships struggled to break away, Ming archers unleashed a deadly volley on the enemy flagship. An arrow pierced Chen in the eye, killing the Han leader instantly and cementing a Ming victory. 12

Several Han ships escaped upstream, but hundreds were destroyed or surrendered. The Ming took dozens of warships intact, replete with weapons and horses on board, strengthening both their army and their naval forces.

Victory Begets Empire

The death of Chen provided Zhu with the decisive victory he needed. With his reinforced fleet and victorious land forces, he was on the path to conquering the rest of China. By 1368 he had subjugated the Han and the Wu, forced the remnants of the Mongol Yuan back toward the steppes of Central Asia, and established the Ming dynasty. It would last for nearly three centuries, a period of peace and stability and a great flowering of literature, arts, and architecture.

Both the Han and Ming forces demonstrated the importance of joint operations during the Lake Poyang campaign. Both used naval and ground forces in a coordinated strategy. Amphibious assaults were made by both fleets, and the Han fleet's tower ships projected power ashore by providing fire support with archers, cannon, and other gunpowder weapons during the siege of Nanchang. But in the end, superior naval tactics won out over superior numbers. "The Ming victory was due to their more effective use of their fleet," observes historian Edward L. Dreyer. "While Han used its fleet essentially as an instrument for attacking cities . . . the Ming squadrons were versatile and capable of fighting naval battles as well." 13 The campaign finally ended in a decisive fleet engagement in the defense of ground forces. Modern joint operations strive to achieve what the Ming forces did seven centuries ago, yet the battle remains relatively unknown in naval circles in the West.

The Battle of Lake Poyang demonstrates the importance of naval warfare at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. As historian Peter Lorge writes, "naval warfare and operations were crucial to the creation and unification of the Chinese Empire for over two thousand years." 14 A proper grasp of the military history of China, particularly its often misrepresented naval history, is vital to understanding the present and future.



1. Fairbank quoted in John R. Dewenter, "China Afloat," Foreign Affairs 50, no. 4 (2004), p. 739.

2. Elridge quoted in Jung-Pang Lo, "The Emergence of China as a Sea Power During the Late Sung and Early Yuan Periods," The Far Eastern Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1955), p. 489.

3. Kenneth Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 34.

4. Peter Lorge, War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China: 900-1795 (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 103.

5. Ibid., p. 103.

6. Edward Dreyer, "The Poyang Campaign, 1363," Chinese Ways in Warfare , Frank Kierman and John King Fairbank, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 210.

7. Lorge, War Politics, and Society , p. 100.

8. Ibid., p. 101.

9. Translation in Chase, Firearms , p. 34.

10. Dreyer, "The Poyang Campaign," p. 222.

11. Lorge, War, Politics, and Society , p. 104; Stephen Turnbull, Fighting Ships of the Far East: China and Southeast Asia, 202 BC - AD 1419 (Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2002), p. 40.

12. Dreyer, "The Poyang Campaign," pp. 238 - 239.

13. Ibid., p. 240.

14. Peter Lorge, "Water Forces and Naval Operations," A Military History of China , David Graff and Robin Higham, eds. (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 2002), p. 81.

 

 
 

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